Opening Day and all's well

April 04, 1994

A lot more opens today at Camden Yards and ballparks around the country than just another baseball season. The Orioles, now settled comfortably in their trend-setting new stadium, will field the strongest team in years. That the club will do so is largely due to its new local ownership. That alone launches a new era for the Birds. And baseball itself is embarking on an era of its own, with three divisions in each league and expanded playoffs. Some fans like the idea, others detest it. But it marks change in a sport that changes very slowly.

For the Orioles, the sun shines more brightly. They are now a home town team in every way. The difference that local ownership makes is evident on the field, with four high-priced free agents and a payroll that has jumped $10 million over last year and may climb some more.

The Orioles have been ever-so-close but not quite on the top of the standings in recent years. All those years the fans' lament was over the failure to shell out money for the one or two players who might have made the difference. Now in Peter Angelos the ball club has local ownership with its heart on the playing field and not exclusively in the treasurer's office. Money doesn't buy pennants, but it sure helps.

Off the playing field there may be some clouds on the horizon. The owners continue to dawdle about hiring a commissioner while making it more questionable whether one would make much difference anyway. Television revenues are down even as attendance continues to surge. The owners continue to insist on putting a lid on players' salaries while they themselves raise the ante for free agents. A handful of senators grumble about the sport's anti-trust exemption but show no real disposition to do anything meaningful about it.

A new divisional configuration leaves the Orioles in the toughest American League division but with an extra shot at the playoffs. There will be two rounds of league playoffs instead of one, pushing the World Series back another week into late October. The Fall Classic isn't a winter sport yet, but it's getting there. The new division structure leaves an obvious gap to be filled by further expansion and is probably the precursor of inter-league play. Purists who believe baseball should be watched only in shirt sleeves need to remember it's a business first, a sport second.

But those aren't fit thoughts for Opening Day. This is the afternoon when all prospects are bright, all pitchers' arms strong, all outfielders fleet, all infielders nimble and Cal Ripken is Cal Ripken. Let's get on with the game.

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